A bit of a humorous look at motorcycle life on the BAM, shot and put together by our co-riders on that section of the trip, Geir Stormoen, Erik Gran Kvaase and Steve Røyset.
Click on each for a larger resolution:
I slept in till almost midday in my Udachny hotel room. I had thoughts of riding back to Mirny today, but it was a Saturday. The few things I needed to do in Mirny needed to wait until Monday anyway, and I was still thinking about a potential ride out with the towns bad boys. As it happens the bad boys didnt contact me until 5pm, and I had just jet washed the bike (thanks to the mining company guys) and refilled it with fuel, thinking they wouldnt call. In any case, the lads didnt actually know what lay beyond the river crossing, and their bikes didn’t look like they stood a good chance of going very far.
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I had packed the night before and decided to leave early. I could have waited round until 11:30 when the cafe opened and had a cup of tea and stocked up on some food, but instead hit the road about 8:45am
It was terribly cold, probably about -3 degrees. Light snow had fallen overnight, the second snow of the season. The previous night had seen the first snow but it hadnt stuck. Even with all the gear on including my heated vest and gloves I was struggling with the cold and reduced speed to 75km/h for the first hour to help deal with it.
After a completely uneventful morning I reached Chernyshevsky 430 km and 5 hours later, stopping there to refuel and to get something to eat and drink. I continued on to Mirny, arriving soon after 3pm. When I turned on my phone, a SMS arrived from Arnaud, saying he was making good progress on the Vilyuisky Trakt and should arrive in Mirny tonight. I called Ilya, the biker I knew in Mirny and he was fixing his Africa Twin with the town’s moto-cross guys. I went round there and did a couple of laps of the moto-cross track myself on the XC, before letting a proper motocross rider have a go on my bike.
About 6pm I got a phone call from Arnaud. He had just arrived in Mirny. I told him to meet Ilya and myself in Lenin Square. Five minutes later and we were all there. Arnaud had a contact in Mirny who had a place where we could stay for free, so we waited for the contact to show up and take to our very humble lodgings, before heading out for a dinner of Shashlik and beer before retiring.
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9am and Arnaud woke me up in my freezing unheated room with news that he had just been told there was a boat leaving Lensk at 12:00. We had been worried about when we might get the next boat so this was a boat we needed to try and take. They would hold the boat until 12:30 for us. It was a 3 hour ride. We had 30 minutes to wake up, pack and leave Mirny.
I didnt so much pack as throw all my gear into my bags. I still had stuff at Andrei’s garage and Andrei doesnt usually start until 10am, but I called him and asked him to rush down and open his garage for me. He did.
Arnaud and I sped full throttle down to Lensk, slowing only for the mud created by recent rain, and roadworks. We headed directly for where the boat had dropped me off 5 days earlier, and the same boat was waiting. Luggage was stripped off and our bikes shoved up the nose of the boat to rest on the front deck.
From here it was a 5 day boat ride upstream to Ust Kut, on a twin engined boat that had only one engine working.
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07, 08, 09, 10, 11.09.09
Arnaud was the French guy who had stopped Tony in the streets of Vladivostok after recognising him as one of the Sibirsky Extreme guys. He had been after road condition information on the Road of Bones, as he was about to board a boat to Magadan. I had kept in touch with Arnaud, and a few weeks later (when he was relaxing in Yakutsk) we chatted about the BAM road and Vilyuisky Trakt, and which would be better to get him back to Irkutsk. As my experience of the BAM road unfolded, and with Arnaud travelling solo, it became clear that the only choice was the Vilyuisky Trakt.
Arnaud took the recommended road and was greeted at every ferry,and almost every cafe and fuel stop with “Guess what?! We had two English guys come thru here a few months ago also on motorcycles”.
Arnaud is fluent in Russian and reported to me when we met in Mirny that not only were the two English guys famous on the Vilyuisky Trakt, but Tony and I had made a positive impression everywhere. That is something that money cant buy, an inner satisfaction. These people had been very good to us (apart from one river crossing truck driver) and it was satisfying to hear we had left a positive impression with the Yakuts of the Vilyui valley, as indeed they had with us.
Arnaud has been in Siberia for 15 years, running his own tour firm on Lake Baikal, organising movie sets in Yakutia etc, even running motorcycle tours around the Baikal region. He is riding one of his left over tour bikes, a TTR 250. It’s proved a little underpowered for the more open sections of road, and he said he was full throttle for the whole road to Lensk.
As the boat sailed into the first night, we began talking about some of the expressions of interest I have had in the Sibirsky Extreme Project. Arnaud, with his years of running tours and logistics in Siberia felt there was be a good opportunity to put together a one-off organised motorcycle trip from Magadan to Lake Baikal next year, led by the two of us.
The following days were spent refining the concept. The more we thought and talked about it, the more the idea made sense. So few people ever make it to Magadan on a bike, or get to do the Road of Bones, yet many dream of it. The logistical and language barriers are the primary reasons. Its a hell of a long way away, its very hard to get to, and nobody there speaks English. As for the Vilyuisky Trakt into the attractive heart of Yakutia, its virgin territory for foreigners, let alone motorcyclists. Lake Baikal is a logical, beautiful place to finish and really is Arnaud’s speciality … he knows that region like the back of his hand.
Look for a link on the website in the weeks ahead. It could only ever be a small group, 5-8 people, over 4 weeks. If anyone is interested, drop me a line thru the blog and we will send out more detailed information as we put it together. If we get enough expressions of interest, we will have a serious ride on next summer, Magadan – Baikal.
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Arnaud and I had arrived back in Ust Kut around 10pm last night and arranged to stay on board the boat for one more night. The plan was to leave first thing in the morning. We pushed the bikes off the boat and locked them together next to the boat, set the alarm for 05:30 ! and tried to sleep. Sleeping was near impossible onthe boat, without the drone of the engine in the background and it was an evening of tossing and turning and restlessness.
5:30 came and despite both wanting to sleep in, we headed down to the galley, where the cook from the boat had also woken up early to cook breakfast for us. With full stomachs, we loaded up the bikes and were ready to go by 6:30, only it was still pitch black. I consulted my phone … daylight comes to Ust Kut at 7:20 am on this day of the year. And so we went back to our cabin and had 45 minutes snooze before finally hitting the road about 7:15.
It was cold and foggy and I had dressed in my heated vest. Arnaud on his little 250 had no such luxury. He just had to endure the cold. Bratsk was 350km away, mostly over dirt roads, but the roads were decent and we made it to the sprawling spread out city of Bratsk around lunchtime. The Hydroelectric dam at Bratsk is supposed to be one of the largest in the world, and it certainly was huge. I have never seen one bigger.
I noticed my front end didnt feel right. Tony P has a credo that if something doesnt feel or sound right, its because something isnt right, and you need to stop and sort it out. I knew something wasnt right but just felt like I wanted to get to Krasnoyarsk where the bike would get a full going over by Zhenya and his team of bike mechanics.
Bratsk is spread out over about 50 km and while riding through Bratsk the unease in the front end of the bike felt progressively worse. We stopped and chatted to some Police guys about the road to Taishet, the last 300km of the BAM road. They said if we want to go to Krasnoyarsk from Bratsk, we needed to go on the asphalt road to Tulun and then the Trans Siberian Highway to Krasnoyarsk. With my front end clearly sick, I decided not to argue. It was a longer route, but a safer one with a sick bike.
80 km outside of Bratsk and I was kicking myself for not listening to Tony’s credo. I had seen grease oozing past the right front wheel bearing seal when we had stopped in Bratsk and strongly suspected that bearing was on the way out. I had been obsessed with getting to Krasnoyarsk and should have stopped in Bratsk to see what could be done about the bearing. Now I was out on the empty road and the bearing was dead. It was cold but at least it had temporarily stopped raining. There was nothing for it but to get sore and greasy and sort the problem.
Arnaud rode 500 yards ahead where a truck was parked on the side of the road and borrowed a hammer. I jacked up the bike with a stick and removed the front wheel. I started whacking out the old bearing with the hammer and a screwdriver. Predictably it crumbled and I was left with the problem of trying to remove the outer housing of the old bearing. After 20 minutes and a lot of sore thumbs, I had removed the old bearing completely and searched around in my spare pars bag for new bearings.
5½ months on the road and a lot of water in the side bags had left my spare bearings in poor shape. All my spare parts were covered in sand and rust. I had no option by to clean up one of the bearings as best I could and use it. The truck drivers up the road began to move off and Arnaud went to offer them the hammer back. They said we needed it more th
Tony and Terry checked into the Lena Hotel in downtown ust Kut. I had ridden ahead of them to get to Ust Kut in time to sort out a boat trip back to Lensk.
I still harboured a burning ambition to get to the Arctic Circle in Asia. Tony and Terry were short on time and had to head back to the UK, but I thought I just had enough time before the seasons changed to try one more time to get North from Udachny.
A few handshakes and hugs could never be enough to say farewell to the two guys who have partnered me along this BAM Road odyssey. Tony has been with me for almost 3 months … initially just planning to ride Altai, Tuva and Lake Baikal with me over 3 weeks, but that grew into 3 months across some of the wildest roads in Siberia. I am unsure how it will feel to be riding without Tony. It was in Central Asia the last time I set out on a day’s ride without waking up Tony first. I dont think I have met a guy with such understated determination. No matter how tough things got, Tony just put his head down and got the job done. What he lacked in technique he made up for in abundance with balls. The guy is all about balls. If you see him, offer to shake his balls!
Terry has been a different asset on the BAM road. Apart from his ability to have a laugh, his vast off road riding experience going back about as long as I have been alive, was put to good effect on the tough BAM road. When the going got really tough it was great to send in Terry up front to show the best line though. I learned a lot about line picking from watching Terry carve up the toughest tracks. Terry was the first person we turned to if anything mechanical or technical was amiss. ‘Terry, what do you reckon?’. Terry and I rode at similar tempos and for long stretches it was just Terry and I riding together, followed by a wait for Tony.
I will really miss those guys. In 2 weeks or so, they will be back in England, and I will be where they are now. Maybe I am mad to head up to Udachny again.
I loaded the bike onto the boat for Lensk at another obscure loading point. As it happened, the boat had to dock briefly at the main river port anyway, next to the Lena Hotel. I called the guys and told them to bring a few beers down to the river. We clinked beer bottles for the last time down on the shores of the Lena, and my boat pulled away into the darkness, set for 1000 km on the Lena.
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30.08 – 31.08 – 01.09.09
I shared a 4 berth room on the boat with Valeri, and old truck driver from Lensk. He was clean, didnt drink or smoke, and was about as good a companion as I could have hoped for.
I had been told the ride to Lensk would be two days, Valeri had been told a day and a half. A couple of hours out of Ust Kut and it was apparent that was not going to happen. The engines shut down and the boot moored in the river about midnight. When I awoke in the morning, we had not moved. We were still just 45km from Ust Kut. It was almost midday before the engines fired up again. We had thought the boat had stopped due to fog last night, but there had be no fog since early in the morning. It was apparent there was a bit of engine repair and maintenance going on. I noted only one propeller was turning and when the boat was moving we were making about 17-20 km/h … about the same as the barge had done two months earlier. So I assumed we would also take about 3 days for the journey.
The boat had warm showers for a few hours each day and a galley, where hot meals were prepared 3 times a day. That was a big improvement on the barge. In theory the barge could have cost us about 9000 rubles each back in July … the price for vehicles was 4000 rubles per metre of length. But they didnt know how to account for motorcycles as they are not full width vehicles. I guess they could have charged us half the regular price per metre, but in the end they charged us nothing, and we took the barge from Ust Kut to Lensk for free. The boat I was on now, the ‘Moskovsky 11’ charged 8000 rubles (180 EUR) per passenger for the journey (which included a cabin) … and 6000 for the motorcycle, which was fitting neatly on the front deck of the boat.
I have been in touch with Arnaud, the Frenchman we met in Vladivostok. Arnaud went up to Magadan and rode to Yakutsk. He is planning to ride to Lensk and we will probably try and take the return ferry together from Lensk to Ust Kut in about a week.
while beached in Kirensk to pick up a few passengers, I briefly fired up the laptop internet connection and had a chat with Mac Swinarski. He is back in Poland after his epic ride to Anadyr.
This year is a turning into a great year for horizon widening in Siberia. All sorts of new possibilities have opened up. Routes have been mapped and documented. Mac was telling me even the locals in Anadyr know nothing about the perfectly decent new roads he found to their city. Only a handful of people know anything about the roads – usually the truck drivers that regularly drive them in their 6WD trucks – and they typically dont have internet. We found the same with the BAM road and Vilyuisky Trakt … There was only one guy who could tell us the Vilyuisky Trakt was definately do-able in its entirity, and that was Andrei the mechanic in Mirny.
Most of the locals you ask en route don’t have a clue and know only about the area within about an hour or two’s drive away from where they are. The two Moscow guys we met adventuing across the country in their wazzik (Road of Bones) had expressed great surprise that we had done the Vilyuisky Trakt. They had been been researching Russian 4WD sites for months, and found nothing to suggest it was possible.
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Back to life on the river … A day later, and our boat docked in Vitim, where the Vitim River joins the Lena. Vitim is a real boom town around here. There is a big plan to develop oil and gas fields about 170 km ‘inland’ and Vitim will be the centre of logistics for that. The next few years will see the town grow from a small service port to one of the key cities on the Lena, the same way Lensk grew dramatically to service the diamond towns of Mirny, Almazny, Aikhal, Udachny and Anabar several decades ago.
Valeri my cabin mate was telling me that if it werent for the crisis they would have started building the planned road between Lensk and Vitim already. Watch out for that one in the next few years. Already there is a road from the BAM town of Nebel to Kirensk on the Lena, so in a couple of years you would need a boat only from Kirensk to Vitim. In about 6-7 years, you wont need the boat at all to go from Ust Kut to Lensk as there should be a road all the way. (Actually you dont need a boat now – you can go all the way the long way round via Tynda and Yakutsk.) Plans are to link Ust Kut with the new oil and gas fields by road, which will already be linked to Lensk via Vitim.
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About 10am, after 3.5 days on the river, the boat docked in Lensk and I unloaded my bags and then the bike. I had a big day ahead of me. I was going to try and get to Udachny, 770km away, all on dirt roads, by the end of the day. If I made it, it would be the biggest day of the trip in terms of mileage. I had wasted enough time on the boat and had itchy feet. Too much time sitting and thinking, without any doing.
I found a fuel station and hit the road. It was 10:20 when I left Lensk. I’d had plenty to eat on the boat over the last few days so breakfast was not required. I would go straight through to Mirny 240 km away.
The road from Lensk to Mirny was in truly excellent condition. Its one of the finest dirt roads I have ever ridden. I sat on 110 km/h the whole way, but if I didnt have mousse in my front tyre and gearing for low speed via my front sprocket, I would have done most of the road at 130. I stopped on for photographs. The seasons were changing up here already and the trees were bursting with colour.
I fuelled up again on the southern edge of Mirny. I didnt need to – I would fuel up at Chernyshevsky 100 km further up the road too, but there the price would be a lot higher and the quality less reliable. Better to get as much as possible while in Mirny. I sped on to Andrei’s workshop, our trusty mechanic from 2 months ago, arriving at 12:45. I had texted him I was on my way as I left Lensk, but it was a quiet day in the workshop and he was away. I stripped the bags off the bike and just took a couple of much lightened bags – leaving two bags at Andrei’s to collect on my return.
I stopped at the Mirny market place to pick up some Samsa’s for the trip North. Andrei had shown me this little shop, a personal favorite, 2 months ago, and remembered the samsa’s were the best I had eaten in Russia. I took the liberty with time of eating one. I pulled out of Mirny just before 2pm. It would be a 6-7 hour ride to Udachny, 530 km away, assuming I stopped only for fuel along the way.
The road from Mirny to Chernyshevsky is not as good as the Lensk – Mirny section of the Anabar Road, and party out of respect for the road and partly because I wanted to get accustomed to riding at 90 km/h for the section North of Chernyshevsky to conserve fuel, I slowed to 90 km/h for the 105km to Chernyshevsky. I topped up with 5 litres of fuel there. Now I was maxxed out on fuel. Both tanks dripping fuel onto the pavement. 22 litres ready to burn.
Last time we went up from Chernyshevsky, both Tony and I had both burned more fuel than expected … we had a strong headwind the whole way and rode at 110 km/h … which probably explains it. But I ran out before Aikhal, which is still 65 km short of Udachny, and relied on Tony going ahead to get me 5 litres. This time I wanted to go straight thru to Udachny. There wasnt too much wind about and I was going to try and stick to the more economical speed of 90 km/h by the GPS … which is about 96 km/h on my speedo.
The usual collection of ‘Jacksons’ (terminology courtesy of the brothers Vince) stopped me to ask the usual question in Chernyshevsky when I refuelled and then stopped at the shop for a litre of liquid refreshment, but I brushed them aside. I was on a mission. I had now done about 350 km and had 420 still to go – non stop. I didnt know when it got dark this far North at this time of year, but I was only 3 weeks from the equinox … I guessed it would be about 8pm. I had no time to spare if I wanted to not risk riding in the dark.
Headphones were blaring and I just concentrated on the surface of the road ahead. There had clearly been rain around and some patches of the road were moist, tho so far no rain had touched me today. The first point of interest would be the village of Morkoka. It’s the only inhabited place between Aikhal and Chernyshevsky. It has about half a dozen buildings, a fuel station that seems to only sell diesel (though I would try again to buy petrol when I got there) and I have been told a cafe with rooms.
When I got there, I asked a stopped truck driver where the cafe was. It seems a silly question for someone in the west, but in the more remote parts of Russia, every building and every door looks the same. None offer a hint of what is behind each one. Places like Morkoka dont even bother with signs. There are no visitors here – Just the regular truck drivers who know where everything is. I marked the location of the cafe on my GPS and moved on to the fuel station.
I am compiling a list of waypoints of all the cafes, fuel stations, hotels, water hazards etc I have used, crossed or even seen in off the beaten track Siberia. I think that would be useful. No one needs a guide or guide book if you already know where the fuel, cafes and hotels are.
As I suspected, the fuel station refused to sell me fuel – mentioned something about needing paperwork, coupons or something like that to buy here. I looked inside my tanks to guess how much fuel I had left. My economy looked good. I estimated at current consumption I would get to Udachny with 2-3 litres to spare.
It was always a risk, now that I was travelling alone. When I was with Tony we could take these risks. If one person ran out of fuel, the other could go ahead with the fuel canister. Tony had been Tsar of the spare fuel canister … mainly from necessity. Terry and I both had 22 litres of capacity, due to modifications, but Tony had just the stock 17 litre tank. This was however, compensated with a old 5 litre oil container found by the side of the road, at a cost of zero rubles / dollars / euro / sterling. By strap
Terry had asked to take a day off to have a bit of a look around Lake Baikal and I was in no mood to disagree. We decided to take a ride down to the seal hunting village of Baikalskoye 40km to the south, sort out anything that needed sorting and generally have a relaxed day. The weather was awesome. Sure it was bloody cold prior to about 11am, but clear blue cloudless skies cheered us up. It was the first cloudless day since meeting Terry … he must be bad luck!
My bike wouldnt start, so Tony went into the centre of Severobaikalsk to sort out breakfast, while Terry and I started the time old process of checking if we are getting spark, if so, are we getting fuel? It turned out we were not getting fuel. A connection was loose to the fuel pump. Once diagnosed, and the connection jiggled around a bit, all was well and the bike reassembled just in time to enjoy a greasy take away breakfast.
We rode about 10km out of town and found a deserted stretch of lakeshore to chill out on. There was plenty of deserted beach, but we chose a nice grassy spot. Mosquito free, midge free, ant free … it was heavenly and the boys both soon drifted off to sleep. Must be an age thing. I began to daydream about everything from changes taking place back at home in London to people we met or crossed paths with on our recent travels.
I have since heard (see feedback in various blogs) from two other bikers I had sought … one was the mystery solo biker that passed through the Kyubeme fuel dump about a week before Tony and me … he indeed was a Pole, as we suspected. Marek Grzywna – his blog is at http://syberianexpress-majopl.blogspot.com.
And of course the two Poles whose route (and accomodation) we echoed from Vanino to Fevralsk with uncanny commonality – even sleeping in the same room (totally unintentional) for about 3 different evenings – I have since heard from Robert ‘Movistar’ Mamzer, who was one of those guys. We had such common experiences that its now my duty to have a beer with him!
I wondered what happened to the American on the red bike (Olyokma River Bridge) … by way of an update on this one, I had also spoken to the security guy at the Kuanda River Bridge. That was another bridge that anyone taking the BAM road must cross. He remembered the Americans (plural … 2 of them he recalled), but they had taken a flatbed train at least as far as Chara. So they hadnt ridden the whole road to Tynda? and maybe he/they had also skipped the mighty Vitim River Bridge – that cradle of manliness! I still need to learn more. Its the only loose end in terms of contacts. Does anyone know who this guy is?
In Baikalskoye, we grabbed an ice-cream each and headed down to the jetty, taking in the cloudless blue sky and crystal clear waters of Lake Baikal. Eventually it was time to head back to Severobaikalsk. I needed to find a place to upload some long overdue pictures for the blog and Tony hadnt checked his email in weeks. Terry is a bit of a luddite, so no problem for him. He just sat out sunning himself in Severobaikalsk’s central square.
When all was done, we stopped off at the market for a huge and tasty dinner of shashlik – long one of my favorites, and now one of Terry’s favorites too, before grabbing a few beers and heading back to the hotel to pack.
With the hard riding all behind us now, we re-arranged the loads. We would soon be parting ways and now as as good a time as any to make sure the right stuff was on the right bike.
– – –
Another nice sleep in and warm shower to start the day. This civilisation stuff can really grow on you – makes us wonder why we ever headed out into the real wilds of Siberia. Today would be a relatively short ride – 340km on prepared roads. A mere 6 hours or so. We left Severobaikalsk around 10:30. By 1pm we were passing the point where the Zhigalovo Road meets the BAM road … a point Tony and I got to exactly 2 months ago to the day, on our way up to Yakutia.
It was strange to ride a road that felt familiar. Almost every point in the road gave me flashbacks to 2 months ago. Its incredible how much data can be stored in the brain … all HD quality video replays from 2 months ago came flooding back. We stopped in at the same railway canteen at Magistralny for lunch.
Tony had been complaining of a soggy rear end … I pointed out he was of pensionable age so it was par for the course. He however wanted to look at his tyre pressures and wheel bearings … before realising his rear wheel axle nut was loose. Phew!, at least thats easy to fix.
Onwards and upwards to Ust Kut … about 3:30pm we passed the spot that was total and utter muddy bog 2 months ago. In the cloudless blue sunny skies of today, riding it now was a doddle. It was almost dry. But it was still easy to imagine how it would look after a days rain!
In the final few dozen kilometres into Ust Kut, Tony had flashbacks to Yakutia and his 15 punctures. He had two rear wheel punctures, to add to one he scored last night. All up he is now up to 18 punctures. I think there is a good chance he can get 20 by the time he gets back to Denham Village in west London. I had already arrived in Ust Kut and sat in front of the hotel eating shashlik in the sun. Eventually the two stragglers arrived and checked into the hotel.
There was only 700km of the 4280km BAM road to go. Just over a days ride to Taishet and the end of the line.